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Peace and War: Despite Violent History of Coexistence, Nigeria’s Herdsmen and Farmers Form Unlikely Alliance
Amidst the bloody scenes splattered on the canvas of northern Nigeria occasioned by herder-farmer conflicts, Bayo Akinloye explores how farmers and herders are living in peace in the towns that straddle three local government areas in Oyo State, south-west of Nigeria
The first-ever recorded conflict between a herdsman and a farmer did not occur in Nigeria – home to the bloodiest farmers-herders crisis. It happened not far from the biblical garden of Eden, the lost paradise. The conflict resulted in murder as one brother (a herdsman) killed his younger brother (a farmer). With that bloody episode, the story of farmers and herders is often told in plots and scenes of gory.
After settling 38 years ago at Kondo, a bucolic village near Igbo-Ora (a town situated 80km north of Lagos), Alhaji Idris Abubakar (a Fulani from one of Nigeria’s North-central states) does not only speak native Yoruba, he now nicely spices his words with proverbs—expressions Yoruba believe enrich their conversations. He is the Seriki Fulani, Ibarapa Central Local Government of Oyo State.
“Before a man relies on awure (a charm believed to bring good fortune in business), he must first endear himself to his neighbours,” Abubakar quips in fluent Ibarapa accent. His allusion was to the reason for the cordial relationship which exists between his fellow Fulani herdsmen and the farmers who are predominantly Yoruba in Oke-Ogun, northern part of the state.
Lounging on a mat on a sweltering afternoon in his expansive house in Igbo-Ora, the largest Ibarapa town, Abubakar says he has never had to visit a police station regarding any clashes with farmers. He and other Serikis (principal chiefs of Fulani herdsmen) in the three Ibarapa local government areas (East, North and Central) agreed to always look out for any bad elements that can jeopardize the peaceful coexistence. The same charge was also given to all herdsmen.
Alhaji Muhammed Malik is of Yoruba tribe and has been the Chairman (Seriki) of Butchers in Eruwa, Ibarapa East Local Government of the state for 35 years. He speaks passable Hausa and Fulfulde and has earned the trust and admiration of the Fulani who daily throng for business at the abattoir he heads.
Malik says the understanding of the Yoruba culture and language has contributed to the peaceful relationship between farmers and herders in the south-west of Nigeria.
That cordial relationship, between Fulani herders and Yoruba farmers in Ibarapa dates back to generations and has almost blurred the ethnic divide, say Abubakar and Malik.
In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. If the Nobel Peace prize were to be given to some individuals in Oyo State, it would be given Abubakar and Malik because of their peace efforts in South-west Nigeria as regard farmers and herders.
Peace – elusive and explosive
The peace efforts of farmers and herders in Oyo State stand in sharp contrast with the situation in many agrarian communities in the South-east and the Middle Belt of the country where there is constant violent clashes between the two groups.
The Amnesty International in its latest report said 3,641 persons died in Nigeria between 2016 and 2018 from clashes between the groups, a claim government swiftly debunked as untrue.
The conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria, with the Middle Belt as the flashpoint has spread southward. Since September last year, at least 1,500 people have been killed. At least 1,300 of them from January to June 2018 – with over 100 cases of violence and fatalities than previously recorded since the conflict began worsening in 2014.
In Plateau State, there are renewed confrontations between herders and farmers. A report indicated that between September 8 and October 17, last year, 75 people were killed, 13,726 displaced and about 500 houses razed, mainly in Bassa local government area.
With the bloodbath spilling over into 2018, over 300 deaths were recorded in attacks on villages in Bassa, Bokkos, Barkin Ladi, Riyom, Mangu and Jos South local government areas.
In the state that has earned the sobriquet, ‘food basket of the nation’, Benue has also become the melting point of farmers-herders crisis as situation worsened in that area following the November 1, 2017 announcement of a law by the state government banning open grazing thus outlawing the age-long practice of herders allowing their herds to roam and graze in the open.
Two months after that, between January 1 and 7, 2018, armed men widely believed to be herders enraged by the law raided six farm settlements in Logo and Guma local government areas, killing at least 80 people.
The attacks have continued with over 300 more killed in the state since then.
It is the same sorry story in Nasarawa State where between January and June 2018, about 300 people were killed in violence involving herders and farmers for the most part in the southern part of the state comprising Doma, Awe, Obi and Keana local government areas. Most of these killings followed the influx of herders driven there by the Benue State anti-grazing law.
Further up in the north in Taraba State, the longstanding farmers-herders tension, where the state government had planned to ban open grazing. This was said to have led to a violent clash which started on January 4 to 17, killing at least 124 people, dozens of homes set ablaze, hundreds of livestock stolen or killed, and farms destroyed in Wukari, Gassol, Lau and Ibi local government areas.
According to media reports, dozens more were killed in incidents since then, including over 70 who lost their lives from July 5 to 8 in violence between farmers and herders in Lau local government area.
The rising tolls
The surge of attacks and counter-attacks between farmers and herdsmen has taken heavy humanitarian and economic tolls in the Middle Belt and a part of the North-east. The humanitarian impact is particularly grave. From September 2017 through June 2018, farmer-herder violence left at least 1,500 people dead, many more wounded and about 300,000 displaced – an estimated 176,000 in Benue, about 100,000 in Nasarawa, over 100,000 in Plateau, about 19,000 in Taraba and an unknown number in Adamawa. Two thirds of these people have fled since January.
The growing humanitarian challenge has become overwhelming for the capacities of state and national emergency management agencies. Particularly in Benue and Plateau, the state governments’ resources are badly overstretched, reducing their ability to provide medical care, food, clothing and infrastructure in the camps.
Dickson Tarkighir, a Nigerian lawmaker in the House of Representatives from Makurdi/Guma constituency, expresses the difficulty faced by the people in the area: “Our people are starving to death in their own land, and the irony is that we are farmers.”
On July 18, the World Health Organization announced plans to build makeshift clinics and provide routine immunisation for children under five years old in the Plateau State camps. But much more needs to be done to meet the IDPs’ food, health care, water and sanitation needs, particularly in Benue and Plateau.
But that is not all.
Though the escalating violence has brought overwhelming humanitarian challenges, its impact on local economies is also worrisome.
Many families have been displaced and insecurity has disrupted agricultural activities in parts of Adamawa, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba. Thousands of herders said to be displaced from Benue are reported to be finding it difficult to find food for their herds in Nasarawa, as the cattle multiply and graze all the pastures bare. This is just as many farmers are too afraid to back to work on their farms.
Little wonder, food production has been estimated to drop by 33 per cent to 65 per cent in 2018 in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba, as a result of attacks and displacements.
This predicament, in states that make up much of Nigeria’s food basket, could affect food production nationwide, driving up already high food prices and jeopardize businesses related to agriculture. It may also deepen already widespread rural poverty in the North-central.
As the setting sun loosens its grip on the land, you can see herdsmen begin to return with their cattle. Slowly, the herd galumphs homeward, their hooves raising a cloud of brown dust illuminated by the horizontal shafts of the sun’s amber light. Not far away from that view, you will see the bent backs of farmers leaned forward, straightening up. Their outstretched hands rise up in relief as they gather their tools, heading home.
Ramo Fulani (real name, Alhaja Ramota Abdullahi) sits quietly in her tailoring shop in the Oke-Ola area of Eruwa. Born in the area 37 years ago, she prefers to be identified as a Yoruba to a Fulani. Her parents were also born in Eruwa. Same as her husband, Haruna, a third-generation Fulani but generally seen as an Ibarapa man by many of the indigenes.
“We’ve turned to Yoruba,” she says as a neighbour next door plaited her hair. “One fact the farmers have also understood in this locality is that Fulani don’t destroy crops deliberately but animals can be wayward. That makes it easy to find solution to the problem.”
Aliu Sunbare believes the livestock itself is a unifying factor that has engendered love between the farmers and herders.
With his herds of cattle, he and his family have lived for decades around Temidire, a town near Eruwa – and his settlement, Sunbare, has now been recognized by the locals as his surname.
“My brother, Umoru, also married a lady from the Agbeniga compound of Eruwa and one of their children now lives in Ibadan,” Aliu says as he explains how Fulani have seen living in the agrarian south-west area as home.
To him, all the vices many people have ascribed to herdsmen are not anything peculiar to Fulani. He would rather think of them as a reflection of the society in constant climate change and commercial turmoil.
“Fulani didn’t use to live in modern houses. But they now live in mansions. Eruwa used to have substandard hotels, now the town has expensive hotels. We used to give our cheese out for free and Yoruba used to give us yams free. But now, everybody sells. All tribes love money and that’s where the problem lies,” Aliu adds.
That has never come in the way of the cordial relationship between farmers and herders, he says, reaffirming that “the two tribes love ourselves so much and we don’t allow anything threaten the peace we enjoy.”
Echoing those sentiments is Alhaji Yakubu Bello, the Oyo State Chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and the Seriki Fulani, Ibarapa areas.
“We settle our matters amicably even without the police,” says Bello. “It is a form of relationship we met that way. The Seriki, Baale, Kabiesi and Miyetti Allah don’t allow any matter to fester.”
But the coexistence of herders and farmers in this area is not without its edgy moments. Bello agrees the region is not insulated from occasional clashes which he blames on rashness or lack of patience and misunderstanding.
“But the Miyetti Allah holds a regular meeting which it has also turned into a ‘school’ where herders are educated on the ‘dos and don’ts’ (in dealing with farmers) because we don’t want problem,” the Miyetti Allah leader explains.
One of the traditional rulers Bello refers to as the arbiters is the Sobaloju of Eruwaland, Chief Afolabi Opatoyinbo (JP). He and other chiefs dedicate at least a day of the week to entertaining farmers-herdsmen issues at the palace of the town’s monarch, the Eleruwa of Eruwa.
Part of their terms of reference is to hear complaints, inspect damages, summon the perpetrator and charge the person according to the size of the loss. They can also make a claimant reduce his charges if it is discovered that he has exaggerated the level of damages so as to lessen tensions between parties.
In keeping the peace between farmers and herders, Opatoyinbo says an unlikely factor uniting the two distinct communities is intermarriage.
“Intermarriages happen and our people also keep livestock with Fulani, to demonstrate our cordial relationship with. So how can we be fighting each other?” he asks.
His submission seems to capture the reason Taiwo Olayiwola is still keeping calm after the havocs she claims cows wreaked on a portion of her 20-acre cassava plantation at the Budo Balogun-Oke Farm in Iseyin (the capital of Iseyin local government area in Oyo).
The owner of the herd said to have devastated five acres out of her farm on November 29 is known to her as a Fulani that has adopted a Yoruba name, Taye (the older of a set of twins), just as herself. She says she calmly left the farm after the herder rhetorically asked if the cows would not eat.
Olayiwola says she has lodged a formal complaint at the local police station for appropriate actions. A senior police source, however, said her case has not been reported at the Iseyin police station.
According to the police source, most herders and farmers’ cases are usually reported to local vigilantes that both Yoruba farmers and Fulani herders endorsed and referred to as their “police for conflict resolution”. Even when such is brought before the police, the parties involved will be urged to reconcile, after police investigations.
“Taye denied that his animals were responsible for the destruction of some of the crops on my farm when I confronted him,” says Olayiwola. She could not have apprehended the herder that led the cows into her farm, to prove culpability.
The last time her children did that to a herder who allowed his flock eat the cassava tubers the family just uprooted, Olayiwola was slammed a fine for breaching protocols.
“The vigilante said the action of my children against the Fulani herdsman made the cows stray into another farm and destroyed crops there,” she says ruefully. “They said I would pay compensation to the owner of the farm, even though I have not been compensated.”
Oluwatoyin Funmilayo, Head of the Oke Amo Block in Iseyin, says underage herders and some mature ones who may be under the influence of drugs can cause problems as witnessed in Olayiwola’s farm.
But, Bello believes that underage herders are not the problem.
Fulani teach their children from infancy how to protect the family’s wealth same way other tribes train their young ones when it comes to trading and farming, he explains. It is not an uncommon sight to see underage herders leading cattle to lush pastures where the animals can graze without letting any of them stray into farms.
The peace in these areas is not sustained by any adequate compensation paid for farms destroyed or animals killed because recompense can be as meagre as N8,000 per acre.
Olalekan Adeniyi, whose two-acre farm of mixed crops of maize and cassava was destroyed in Igbo-Ora, says he did not even get any compensation. He was away for the last Eid-el-Fitr celebration at the time, so he could not tag any herder with his loss.
Cultivating that size of farm could cost a farmer in Igbo-Ora between N80,000 and N100,000, according to him.
A local man in Eni Aku compound, Amuda Aruna, reveals that he now operates commercial motorcycle, following a cattle invasion of his cashew plantation he dotted with cassava, claiming he was paid N10,000 instead of N50,000 he prayed for as damages.
Why Nigerian government’s peace initiative is failing
The Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, and the Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazzau, have undertaken fact-finding and grief visits to the conflict areas. In addition, the president and other top officials of the federal government have held several consultations on ending the violence.
In January, the National Economic Council constituted a 10-man working committee, headed by Osinbajo. Its mandate included stopping the killings, addressing impunity and facilitating the government’s long-term plan to resolve the herder-farmer resource contest. The committee has recommended enhanced military deployments in the worst-affected states and comprehensive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict.
Subsequently, in February and March, a subcommittee on dialogue, headed by Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi, with the governors of Adamawa, Benue, Plateau and Taraba states as members, visited Adamawa, Benue, Taraba and Zamfara states, consulted with various parties and submitted a report to the National Economic Council.
Yet, Crisis Group, an organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world, in one of its recent reports says that in failing to stop the killings, the Nigerian government is “viewed not so much as lacking in ideas but as insufficiently determined to put them into practice.”
In June, the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, announced another policy initiative by the government, a National Livestock Transformation Plan, aimed at encouraging a more gradual switch from open grazing to ranching. The plan, running from 2018 to 2027, is described as a “multifaceted intervention intended to modernise livestock management, improve productivity and enhance security”.
Under the new plan, 10 states – Adamawa, Benue, Ebonyi, Edo, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba and Zamfara – have been selected as the pilot states, with 94 ranches to be established in clusters of four at 24 locations spread over the listed states.
To participate in the plan, cattle herders are expected to organise and register as cooperatives that will then be able to rent land from state governments and also benefit from loans, grants and subsidies.
The federal and state governments are expected to provide a total of N70 billion ($194 million) for the pilot phase, spanning three years, while private interests are expected to invest in excess of N100 billion ($277 million) between the fourth and tenth years.
The report of the National Conference on the Nigerian Livestock Industry, held in Abuja in September 2017 and submitted to the agriculture minister in January 2018, details the sector’s challenges: gaining access to land; encouraging livestock owners to form cooperatives and clusters; ensuring availability of livestock feed via commercial pasture and fodder production; developing a programme to raise more profitable livestock breeds; providing credit to ranchers at single-digit interest rates; and developing infrastructure such as extension services, disease control and management, and ranch-to-market transportation.
It may well be time for the international community to step into the crisis too as the Benue State House of Assembly called international attention to the insecurity in the state and violence has worsened since then.
“Nigeria’s international friends, notably the diplomatic missions of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada in Abuja, should nudge President Buhari to act more decisively and transparently to end the killings. International human rights groups, some of whom have already raised concerns about the nature and scale of atrocities, should sustain demands for better protection of communities and an end to the impunity.
“Humanitarian organisations, focused largely on the North East, should devote resources to IDPs in camps and communities in Benue and Nasarawa states. Most important, international development agencies, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and African Development Bank, should offer Nigerian authorities necessary advice and technical support to ensure smooth, sustainable livestock sector reform,” the Crisis Group says in its latest report.
Dylan Matthews, the Chief Executive Officer of the United Kingdom-based organisation, Peace Direct, agrees with that.
“International and national donors need to establish rapid funding mechanisms to enable quick turnaround grants to local organisations, based on local early warning and early response mechanisms,” says Matthews.
The Peace Direct head, however, believes that indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms are “massively” under-utilised despite evidence that they can be “remarkably effective”.
He points out: “Civil society represents the biggest source of untapped peace-building potential globally and the violence in Plateau (and other parts of Nigeria) could be averted if much more investment was made to sustain community-focused efforts.”
Devon Terrill, a former documentary filmmaker, who now works with the Stanley Foundation in the Policy Programming Department, stresses the important role the media should play in the ongoing violence.
“Does it matter, in terms of good reporting, who is telling the story? How much of who we are influences what we see and say? As a former documentary filmmaker, in my current role working closely with journalists and media organisations to strengthen coverage of global peace and security issues, my experience is that every detail of a situation that is captured – or missed – influences the picture that is presented to audiences,” Terrill says.
The farmer-herder conflict is believed to be one of the biggest threats to Nigeria’s peace and security with the 2019 general elections just around the corner.
All’s well, that ends well
At any rate, the Bale Agbe of Igbo-Ora, Oladepo Adesope, says the essential quality needed for farmers and herdsmen to coexist is patience. He explains that compensation is not fundamental to the factors promoting peace in Oyo State because damages are often not commensurate to loss of crops or animals.
“When compensations do not seem to be commensurate to the size of crops destroyed, we plead with farmers – and it is the same with the herdsmen,” explains the Onilado of Igbo-Ora, Chief Gabriel Ogunrinde. The payment, usually, is to ameliorate the loss and not to really compensate; he said further, pointing out, “Some Yoruba also have cows, so we can’t be angry with ourselves.”
Peace between farmers and herders in Iseyin, Igbo-Ora and Eruwa is not achieved by mere compensations – to assume it works that way could amount to living in a fool’s paradise. Both farmers and herdsmen know that the peace they preserve at great personal and commercial costs can be lost in a moment of madness if a conflict is left unresolved quickly.
In view of that reality, leaders from both groups have since given out phone numbers to be quickly contacted by farmers and herders for appropriate interventions in case of any issue that can breach the peace of their communities. This is in addition to the “peace meetings” Ogunrinde said are regularly held at the local government secretariat and police station.
Assurances are given at such meetings that crops will not be destroyed and cows will not be poisoned (as some farmers have in the past laced some pastures on their farms with poison as a revenge on herders or to prevent cattle from grazing on their farms) and the need to maintain peace is always emphasized.
A senior police officer at the Igbo-Ora police station emphasizes that the dry season — between November and March — is the period with most incidents of farmers-herdsmen clash.
Everyone, he adds, must be at alert to salvage any situation that may fan the embers of war. “This season is a fragile period of months for both groups,” he says.
Some have said herders stock many animals that the lands are overgrazed. And while they may get away with doing so for years, when drought strikes, overgrazed lands can turn into a permanent desert as is already happening up north in the country.
Experts have pointed in the direction of what happened on the borderlands of the Sahara Desert. Many decades ago, thousands of wells were sunk to provide more water. African livestock raisers rejoiced, for this allowed them to increase their livestock. But, there was not sufficient grazing land to accommodate the increase.
“The Sahel was already sick when a drought began in 1968,” states the book, Our Hungry Earth — The World Food Crisis. “As the grasses died, herdsmen cut down trees so that their cattle could eat the leaves. The drought continued, and the grasslands and farmers’ fields started turning to desert.”
The Sahara, according to a report, had expanded “southward by 650,000 square kilometres (that is an area larger than Spain and Portugal combined) over the past 50 years.”
In the three local government areas in Oyo, expansive vegetations are still luxuriant but locals fear it may not take long before a new reality catches up with the communities.
In the meantime, to forestall any potential violent clash, the police do more of “crime” prevention by encouraging dialogue between the leadership of the two parties.
Above all, the local source says the police emphasize the need for the two groups to see each other as farmers with different specialization: the one into crop farming, the other into animal husbandry.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to farmer-herder conflicts but the custodians of peace in Eruwa, Igbo-Ora and Iseyin believe that their counterparts in other states can learn a thing or two from them to make peace and sustain it. Every story might need a villain but in the three towns that straddle three local governments in Nigeria, everyone appears to be a hero.